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Widger finds lane in world of harness racing

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Sam Widger didn’t grow up planning to be a harness racing driver. When he did get in the seat of the sulky, he wasn’t in it often.

It took a decade for Widger, who lives on a farm near Beecher, to get the attention and confidence of horse owners beyond his family and friends.

Those owners quickly discovered the attention was warranted. Since hitting his stride, he’s been a most familiar face in the winner’s circle at Balmoral Park in Crete and Maywood Park in Maywood.

Late last month, Widger chalked up his 4,000th victory as a driver. On a cold night at Maywood, he guided Polar Bear, a dazzling white stallion, to the front and won by a neck. More wins have followed.

Not bad for a guy growing up in the Quad Cities area who wasn’t quite sure what he would do after dropping out of college.

“I was heading down the partying path,” Widger said. “I never thought I’d be around horses.”

He ended up around them because one of his father’s three jobs was building a horse spa near Quad City Downs, the track in East Moline. That led to helping in the construction, and then, in 1987, trying his hand at driving.

He was 23, and, thanks to advice and mentoring from Tony Morgan, began to find his way in the sport.

“The next 10 years, I didn’t drive a whole lot,” Widger said.

Not until a horse named Juxtaposition came along.

“That was a 2-year-old filly that won a lot of races, including stakes races,” Widger said.

With Widger at the reins.

That success prompted other owners of quality horses to bring Widger in as their driver. Just as notable jockeys are sought after by owners and trainers in thoroughbred racing, the same is true on the harness side, and Widger is now one of those notables. He’s won 2,255 races in the last six years. That’s 375 a year, on average, with a high of 461.

“I’m impressed too,” Widger said sheepishly. “I wouldn’t say I’m a natural at this. When I start to do something, I can learn about it pretty fast. Would I say I’m great at anything? No. But I picked up a lot from a lot of guys.”

Widger clearly knows how to get to the front, and how to stay there. That knack has proved lucrative. Harness drivers get five percent of the purse, so Widger’s take from nearly $30 million in lifetime winnings is close to $1.5 million.

“It’s the best part-time job I’ll ever have,” he kids.

Railbirds notice. Widger said there have been times he was tabbed to drive a 10-1 horse and his presence caused the horse to be bet down to 4-1, a sure sign plungers are betting him as much or more than the horse.

While he has yet to run in the Hambletonian, harness racing’s crown jewel, his success in stakes races could still lead to that. What’s more, his record the last half-dozen years could portend an even longer run of success. Harness drivers can have long careers. All-time wins leader Herve Filion, with 15,180 trips to the winner’s circle, just turned 71, and is still driving in Pennsylvania.

Widger is a kid by comparison, only 47.

“I think I’m young,” Widger said. “I’d like to think I’ve got another 12 to 15 years left in me. And that’s if the sport holds out.”

Horse racing has been hurt financially by the rise in casino gambling, with former horseplayers finding it easier to get their gambling fix via slot machines rather than going to the track or off-track betting centers. That partly accounts for Widger spending parts of each year racing in Indiana, where purses are boosted by slot revenue.

Wherever he runs, the difficulty is the same.

“The toughest part is the mental part,” Widger said. “When you’re doing well, you’re in kind of a groove, and sometimes, things go right even when you do something wrong.”

Happily, Widger has been involved in only one really big spill, the type of accident that gives harness racing rare television coverage.

“A horse went down right in front of me, I went over him and another horse went over me,” he recalled. “It’s amazing how you could come out of it uninjured.”

Things have gone right enough often enough that he, his wife and five children live on a 10.5-acre farm near Beecher. But not too near.

“Several cornfields are our neighbors,” Widger said. “We have to go four miles for a gallon of milk.”

And, except for Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, when he runs at Balmoral, much farther to earn his keep, one victory at a time.



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